Professor Kathleen Blee is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. She is author of four books and recipient of numerous awards for her research and teaching. Much of her research focuses on right-wing social movements, specifically gender in organized racism.
Pundits and scholars alike have pointed to what appears to be increasing visibility of far right figures and ideas in mainstream media and popular culture. Below is an edited transcript of an interview I conducted with Blee in December about what her research can tell us about the results of the November election, how organized racism is changing in the 21st century, and what this means for social movement scholars going forward.
What can the work you did for Inside Organized Racism help us understand about the politics today?
Inside Organized Racism is about a small but significant political movement, that of modern U.S. white supremacism. Although surprising number of these white supremacists support Donald Trump, there is a big political gap between white supremacist groups and most Trump backers. It’s quite a different thing to advocate for cataclysmic mass violence, prepare for race war, or assert that the World War II Holocaust of European Jewry never happened, as white supremacists do, and to advocate for a Republican Party candidate, even one on the far right of the mainstream. We have to be careful about assuming that there is a clear continuum or a slippery slope between white supremacism and electoral politics.
For example, anti-Semitism drives many organized white supremacist movements right now, although it isn’t clear whether anti-Semitism is a defining feature of Trump supporters. Abortion is another example. A lot of white supremacists support abortion for nonwhite women as a way of stemming what they regard as a “white race suicide” if nonwhite births exceed white births. But abortion is anathema to most Trump supporters. There are points of agreement between white supremacists and Trump supporters, but people don’t generally slide from supporting rightist Republicans to being active in the white supremacist movement. In fact, you can’t. Because of their fear of infiltrators, most white supremacist groups are not easy to join, or even to find, without a personal contact.
On the other hand, white supremacy and mainstream conservatism do have an odd intersection in the Trump phenomenon. White supremacists are generally negative about electoral politics, especially at the presidential level since they view the federal government as controlled by a global Jewish conspiracy, that is, as ZOG (Zionist Occupied Government). Of the many white supremacists I have talked to for my research over the years, I never heard anyone say anything positive about a presidential candidate until Trump. But last year, when I was interviewing former white supremacists, some were making positive comments about the Trump candidacy. I was stunned, but I realize that they saw (correctly) saw the possibility of having their ideas represented in the federal government.
You write, “In racist groups, they learn to transform the beliefs that the anthropologist Philomena Essed calls everyday racism into an overarching activist ideology that I term extraordinary racism” (Inside Organized Racism, p. 75). Do you think this line has blurred? Do you find this distinction useful still?
The line between everyday (ordinary) and extraordinary racism is blurred in some ways, and distinct in others. On the question of how to act on one’s racist beliefs, the differences are profound. The extraordinary racism of white supremacism not only insists that the races are different and hierarchical but that protecting the superior position of the white racist requires action, up to and including violent action. White supremacism is not just an ideology of explanation; it’s an ideology of action. Ordinary racism doesn’t have that same push to take violence and catastrophic action on behalf of your beliefs. Everyday racism is an ideology of racial difference and racial antipathy, but tends not to have the conspiratorial edge that is characteristic of the extraordinary racism of white supremacism. Steven Bannon is one of few people who has a foot in both worlds.
Does the term alt-right help us get at some of this overlap?
What is termed the alt right is a weird mixture of groups and individuals that have somewhat different ideas and agendas. Some are just white supremacists, nothing “alt” about them, except they are using a different platform for their propaganda. But the alt-right also includes hyper-misogynistic bloggers, twitter harassers and bullies, and apolitical internet gamers.
White supremacy has gone to a digital platform, and that online digital platform has had huge effect on the movement. It has changed white supremacy dramatically, casting open the question of what it means to be a member of white supremacy now. Should we consider as members people whose only connection is through browsing websites or posting on racist bulletin boards? Too, white supremacy, more so than other movements, thrives on duplicity and artifice. This move to a digital world makes duplicity easier by allowing white supremacists to mount websites that project an image of a movement that is much larger or more varied than is the case.
For instance, several years ago a number of websites popped up that purported to be sponsored by white supremacist women’s groups with writings and blogs under women’s names. Yet, it is important not to take this at face value. Just because a website has a picture of a racist woman, there is no reason to believe that it represents reality.
Moving to a digital environment has also expanded the global reach and global connections of white supremacism. At the same time, it may have undermined its ability to recruit participants for its face to face groups for which they can’t recruit broadly through websites and social media without risking infiltration by the police or anti-racist activists.
Let’s talk about gender. The big statistic to come out of the election was that 53% of white women voted for Trump. What does your research on women of the right help us understand about these women?
Well, I guess this is a simplistic thing to say but it shows that race and other factors can trump gender, so to speak. Certainly, it’s not the first time that has happened. There is a history of women in the far right who see ensuring white superiority or dominance as more important than gender issues. The far right in US is extremely masculinist and male dominated and misogynist. Some call for women’s power – that is, white women’s power — and see women as white racial warriors, but most exhibit deep misogyny and marginalize their women members.
You write, “If we are to develop an effective strategy against organized hatred, we must do so on two levels: by countering racist groups and by fighting the racist ideas and institutions in mainstream America that ensure those groups a fertile ground for recruits” (Inside Organized Racism, p. 192).
When everyday racism and racist practices become the normal way of doing things, that’s a real leg up to white supremacists. When racism is normalized, white supremacists do not need to teach racism, only to move it toward conspiratorial thinking and action. The 1920s Ku Klux Klan became so massive so fast because built on a foundation of anti-Semitism, and anti-black sentiment that was widespread in the white native born Protestant population. The Klan didn’t need to convince recruits to believe in these ideologies, they just gave them a political direction. Extremism gets a faster start if it has an ideological base in the population.
What are your thoughts on forms of collective resistance to organized racism both as a social movement and in formal politics?
It is clear that the most effective way to counter white supremacy is by exposing it. All the collective and individual efforts that expose the true operation of white supremacy—its roots, history, ideology – are effective because white supremacism relies on deception and confusion. Writing and researching is absolutely key to combating organized racism
What can social movements scholars learn from the study of far-right movements?
It is important to avoid US-centric explanations for phenomena like the Trump candidacy which was part of a broader international rise of right-wing populism. As social movement scholars, we need to push back against US-centric analyses and think about the larger global dynamics of far right populism of which Trump is one piece.
It’s hard to find words for what we now face. In all the years I have studied white supremacy, I never thought it would achieve the public visibility and political foothold that it has achieved in the Trump candidacy and presidency.